The holiday letter is first and foremost a matter of convenience, a way to deliver the same news to hundreds of relatives and friends at a busy time of year.
With convenience, as anyone who has received a holiday letter knows, often comes tedium and worse -- too much information.
Who really needs to know about the gall-bladder surgery, the trip to Disney World, the Ivy League acceptance, or to endure those gaze-out-the-window musings about another year gone by?
"Can't they just give us a link?" asks Andrea Farnum, of Silver Spring.
A New York native, Farnum never encountered holiday letters until she moved to Maryland. Then, inexplicably, she started to get them. "They mostly [seem to be] from people who live in the Midwest," says Farnum, who's an assistant to Baltimore chef John Shields.
If it is deftly written and brief to the point of breezy, a holiday letter, with or without photos of the kids/dog/hunting trophies, can be a welcome way to catch up with loved and liked ones.
First and foremost, "Put a lid on the bragging," Farnum says. And, anything "you can't say to your mother, don't put in the letter," she says. "Filter, filter, filter," she advises. "Leave out your child birth, gastrointestinal [ailments] and detailed, disease-related stories."
Ann Feild, an illustrator at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, reacts viscerally to the very idea of a holiday missive: "Big-red-circle/SLASH on long form letters!!" she says in an individually addressed e-mail.
"There's nothing that says 'I care more about me than about you' than a long, overly informative form letter with the addressee's name plugged into the salutation line," she says.
But for someone who has spent most of his life abroad, a holiday letter is one way to connect with friends and family around the world. "My foreign-service job always kept me overseas," say Bob Tetro, who retired 2 1/2 years ago and lives in Arlington, Va. "There was no way to be in touch with anybody from school or different posts," he says. His annual Christmas letter bridged the distance.
Tetro, 60, wrote one of his earliest newsletters in 1995, after a divorce. "I hadn't been in touch with people for a year," he says.
Now that he is back in the States, Tetro continues his tradition of writing a holiday letter and including photos taken around the globe. This year's letter also featured photographs of his remodeled bathroom and kitchen and the sad news that his cat, rescued from the street, had died. "He was a dear friend with some wonderful and loving personality traits," Tetro writes in his letter.
Scrunched down to a tiny font size to include a surfeit of information, Tetro's letters speak of his desire to stay connected to those whom he seldom sees. In an e-mail era, he also enjoys the tactile pleasure of reading others' cards and letters. "Just the idea of sitting here with a glass of wine and looking at what I get in the mail has value," Tetro says.
Sometimes, though, a holiday letter may tell you too little rather than plenty about its sender.
Michelle Trageser, a Baltimore architect, warns that she is "one of those people who hates those letters." She would rather mail Christmas cards with handwritten messages in February than a batch of "form letters" on time.
It turns out that Trageser has a sad tale to tell about a holiday letter gone bad. For years, she has received a seasonal letter from a college friend that she once eagerly awaited. "When I read them, I could hear her voice, and her writing had a way of making the most mundane of life's activities entertaining," she says.
But over the years, "the letters have gotten less and less human, less personal, and have sort of turned into these litanies of lists," Trageser says. "I can't hear her voice anymore, I can't find her in the letter, and so now when I get them, they just make me sad."
A holiday letter isn't required, Feild says: "A simple holiday greeting and inclusion of a phone number or e-mail address should be enough to say 'Would love to hear from you.' "
If you insist on writing a holiday letter, keep these tips in mind:
Make your letter brief (no more than one page) and stick to highlights.
Devote one or two lines to each family member.
Go easy on the photos.
Proofread to avoid careless, embarrassing errors.
Exercise a sense of humor.
And no bragging!